Parental Leave Policies In 4 Countries That Highlight How America Fails Mothers
There is no more important bond than that of parents and their children — at least, this is a philosophy that a handful of countries subscribe to. In other countries, that important bond seems only to exist between mothers and children. And in others, the most crucial societal bond seems to exist between parents and their workplaces — children, the future of society, be damned. There are many ways to interpret the varying forms of parental leave around the world, of course. But however you look at it, they do at least offer a clear look into what any given country's government prioritizes.
If you've grown up in the United States, then you're probably at least aware that there's no federally mandated maternity leave plan that employers must follow. Put another way, new mothers in the United States are not guaranteed any time off after having a child, either paid or unpaid — although many companies do have their own maternity leave plans, and some states do as well. If you're from another country, this sounds like absolute madness. Although maternity and parental leave policies in different countries vary in terms of how much time parents can take, which parent can take how much time, and how much they'll be paid by their employers and by the state, the United States is the only OECD member country that doesn't offer any paid parental leave.
Zero weeks off for either parent, zero money guaranteed from employers or the state. If you talk to someone from, for example, Estonia, where the government mandates 87 paid weeks off, a policy like the one in the U.S. sounds downright callous. Those zeros in the OECD report may be jarring, but you don't have to just look at statistics to get a sense of its effects. When you talk to mothers who have been through it, their experiences really bring those numbers off the page.
The United States
If you look at the American lack of a parental leave policy compared with the rest of the world, a stark image presents itself. The United States is almost alone in offering no government support, and this has the biggest impact on low-income families. While many families are guaranteed unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, this doesn't really help people who are struggling to make ends meet as it is. And for professionals who have an easier time affording it, the 12 weeks during which the company is obligated to protect your job really doesn't amount to much.
Rachel, a new mother in California, was able to take 17 and a half weeks off by using a combination of paid family leave offered by the state, maternity leave offered by her company, and the rest of the time covered by sick leave and unpaid time off. Her husband, the head of his department, was entitled to the same six weeks of paid family leave as Rachel was, but he only decided to take two, as he was worried about the stressful work situation that the time off would create.
"I went back to work when [my daughter] was 14 and a half weeks... and that was not enough time," Rachel tells Bustle. "I mean, I managed — because I had to — but I think a mom and child will benefit from at least six months ... together."
An expectant mother in Michigan, who chose to remain anonymous, is finding that her state isn't nearly as accommodating as Rachel's in California, and she's been looking into ways to advocate for herself and others in her situation:
I work at an agency made up of something like 75 percent 20- and 30-something employees, many of whom are starting families, and our maternity policy is non-existent. We have six weeks paid time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (short-term disability, which is, of course, something we pay into), and then I was told I can take another six weeks off unpaid, if I want, and they'll keep my job secure. So no actual maternity or paternity leave — just taking the maximum time off that I legally can take.
Remember, these women are both white collar, salaried professionals. The situation is much more challenging for waged employees, who simply don't have the option of taking off unpaid time.
Things have improved over time, though, at least in some cases. My own mother notes that when she had my brother almost 30 years ago, the state government she was working for would allow employees to use vacation time after the birth of a baby, but not sick leave. She elected to take significant time off unpaid for the two of us, which put the family into a very tenuous financial situation.
Finland and its Nordic siblings — Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland — all rank towards the top of the heap when it comes to parental leave policy. Each offers parental leave for both mothers and fathers, and each offers a generous amount of it. In the interest of not getting repetitive, let's look specifically at Finland, consistently ranked amongst the best places to be a mom.
Mothers in Finland start out by receiving the famed "baby box" from the government, which includes everything that new parents could possibly need for a baby — gender neutral clothes for all weather, diapers, condoms, even a place for the baby to sleep (i.e., the box itself, which comes fitted with a tiny mattress). Finnish parents can then share just over a year of paid leave, with another couple of years of shortened work days guaranteed by the government until the child finishes two years of school. If both parents elect to go back to work anytime after the six-month mark, they can put their child into subsidized childcare facilities, under the care of trained professionals.
A small percentage of Finnish mothers do run into snags, however, if they work for international companies. One woman who recently had a son felt that she would be left out of important projects at her foreign-based country, so she went back to work before her son was eligible for a place at the government-subsidized daycare. Because of this decision, she ended up having to pay for a private nanny, which cost more than her salary after taxes. While she emphasizes that her story is nowhere near the norm, it is an example of what she calls the "stiffness" of the Finnish system.
"We have a lot of public discussion about [how] women should return to work sooner after giving birth, but the current system is not very supportive of that," she tells Bustle. "Of course this was my own choice, but in reality I also felt that in an international environment I had to balance between the Finnish system and the international business culture."
The U.K. is another country where on paper, the maternity leave policy looks great — and for many mothers, it also works great. You're entitled to 52 total weeks of maternity leave, and you get 90 percent of your salary for the first six weeks of that. After that, though, you just get £500 a month at most, and less if you had a lower salary to begin with.
One expectant mother in the U.K., tells Bustle that the people who most benefit from this are the upper crust. "You can stay home for a year with your baby only if you can afford it," she says. "It's deceiving, and it only works if your husband has a good job [or] salary to back you up."
The U.K. also doesn't have the subsidized childcare for everyone that Finland does, so the situation is especially tough for single mothers who don't make an especially high salary. This same soon-to-be mother explains:
It's only worth [it] financially to go back to work if you have a salary close to £30,000 a year, otherwise you're just working to pay for someone else to raise your kid. I probably wont go back to work because my salary isn't that great.
The former Eastern bloc gets a bad rap in the United States, but according to Pew Research Center, 11 of the 20 countries that offer the most paid maternity leave lie in that part of the world. The Czech Republic isn't exactly at the top of the list, but the country's residents, on the whole, are happy with what they're offered — specifically, 28 weeks of paid maternity leave at 70 percent of the parent's salary, which the father can take over after seven weeks if they so choose (although parents rarely make this choice). After that 28 weeks, the parents are guaranteed an addition 220,000 Czech koruny (just over $10,000 American in today's conversion) that they can choose to use over two, three, or four years, split up into monthly payments.
Jaroslav, a Czech teacher and researcher, says that he and his wife chose two years for their first child and three for their second, because their financial situation gave them the leeway to do that. "I have a bunch of friends in the U.S.," Jaroslav says, "And whenever I write to them about how my wife and I spend time with the kids at home and the state contributes to their care, they envy us a bit."
I can't imagine that we would have to go back to work after a few weeks or a half a year and then look for childcare. When kids are small, they need to spend enough time with someone from the family, so that they build a strong emotional relationship. I think that it's in the public interest that mothers don't have to live in stress about having to go back to work quickly so that they don't lose their jobs.
Annie, an American married to a Czech man but living in the United States, gives us an example of how this mindset can cross borders — and not always in a positive way.
"Really, every time I talk about my maternity leave (whether with Czechs or Americans), the reaction is the same: 'That's unbelievable,'" Annie says. Unbelievable from the American side, she says, because she's fortunate enough to work at a company that just changed its maternity policy to allow new mothers to take up to six months off. And yet, "with Czechs, it's very clearly a horrified reaction at the 24 'short' weeks I'm taking off."
Annie then goes on to describe a feeling of guilt she's been feeling, from both sides. She's reluctant to tell American friends how much time she's been able to take off when they're struggling to go back to work more quickly. Of course, it's another story with Czech friends, where "the guilt is more related to feeling like a bad mother, going back so early."
According to the OECD's statistics, Italy offers up to five months of well paid maternity leave to new mothers, with the payment coming from a combination of the state and the employer. Even freelancers aren't left out in the cold, though — Julia, an American freelancer raising a new baby in Italy, tells Bustle that she got 70 percent of her previous year's average monthly pay throughout the time that she took off with her son. Her son is now almost five months old, and she's preparing to start working again — but with all of the guaranteed time off with her son, she doesn't see that as a bad thing.
"It's only around now that I feel like I can and want to return to working," Julia explains.
My son is almost 5 months old, and while that's still very little, my heart breaks for mothers in countries where they only receive 12 weeks of leave. ... Three months after giving birth I would not have been ready to leave my son in someone else's care. It's so very very little, three months.
Julia also said that new fathers only get three days off after the birth of a child — a "travesty" of the system which she thinks does make things very difficult on new mothers who don't have a strong family support system around them.
"I don't think we should discount the importance of fathers bonding with their babies," she says. "To do so is to play into the gender roles of old, and that type of thinking is simply Victorian."
There are pros and cons to all of these systems, clearly. Maybe employers are reluctant to hire women of childbearing age in countries with long maternity leave periods, even if that sort of discrimination isn't allowed. Maybe the pay really isn't always enough to justify all of the time that the state technically allows. But the rest of the world seems to agree — paid maternity leave, in whatever form and whether it needs improvement or not, is one of the most fundamental building blocks of a functioning society.